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Study of 2018 New Brunswick flooding looks at ways of easing mental health toll

A city building along the St. John River is surrounded by flood waters in Fredericton on Sunday, April 21, 2019.
A city building along the St. John River is surrounded by flood waters in Fredericton on Sunday, April 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

A sociologist says the 2018 flood in southern New Brunswick took a physical and mental toll, and as flooding again hits the province she plans to recommend ways to ease suffering caused by such disasters.

Julia Woodhall-Melnik, an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, is studying how the flood and evacuations last year affected people’s health.

READ MORE: N.B. psychologist encourages flood victims to take care of well-being

“Housing loss in general can lead to fatigue, depression, anxiety, grief, sleep disturbances and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said in an interview.

Woodhall-Melnik conducted interviews with people in March and April, before this year’s flooding began, but she said the possibility of a repeat of last year’s record event was already on everyone’s mind.

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She said many were already anxious and stressed.

“One woman described it as like, ‘We anticipate flooding every year, we just don’t know how bad it’s going to be,’ ” she said.

“Some of them were completely fine with it, saying 2018 was a once in a lifetime flood. ‘We’ll likely never see this again, so I’m fine.’ Others were saying, this could be the new normal.”

Her study is funded by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, but Woodhall-Melnik said it won’t be used to set risk factors for insurance companies.

Instead, she said the intent is to learn how to reduce the impact of these events – specifically on mental health – and to determine what social capital is needed to recover from flooding.

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“The role of neighbours and friends, of politicians, of official systems, first responders, the province, the federal government in providing response – we looked at how people experienced barriers to access different types of capital and how that had an effect on them,” she said.

She said most people talked about the informal supports they received last year, such as neighbours and even strangers bringing food, offering boats and helping to sandbag.

The researchers held focus groups with more than two dozen residents and also spoke with 10 people involved in the official response to the flooding.

Woodhall-Melnik said many people needed to decide whether to make their homes more flood-proof or to move.

“You have this range of people who say, ‘I really love my community and I don’t want to leave, but I don’t know if I can stay,’ to other people who were living on properties that were owned by great-grandparents,” she said. “They had a deep family connection to their home and having to leave would be heartbreaking for them.”

READ MORE: Flood waters dropping slightly in N.B. but officials worried about rainfall in forecast

She said one of the most common recommendations from residents was to bring in the Army to help in the event of a flood – something that was done quickly this year.

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A report on the study into the 2018 flood is expected by early July.

Woodhall-Melnik said recommendations will range from how to provide the information the public needs to ways to reduce the impact on the mental health of residents – both during the flood and in the aftermath.

And she said that with a repeat of major flooding in the province this year, funding has been secured to continue the study in the coming year.